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The supercarrier USS Forrestal (CV-59), formerly AVT-59 and CVA-59, was named after former Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and was the lead ship of her class of aircraft carriers. The other carriers of her class were the Saratoga (CV-60), USS Ranger and USS Independence. She was the largest aircraft carrier since Shinano of World War II vintage, and the first to specifically support jet aircraft. The ship was affectionately called "The FID", because James Forrestal was the first ever Secretary of Defense, FID standing for "First In Defense". This is also the slogan on the ship's insignia and patch. She was also informally known in the fleet as the "Zippo" and "Forrest Fire" or "Firestal" because of a number of highly publicized fires onboard.
Forrestal was launched 11 December 1954 by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Newport News, Virginia, sponsored by Josephine Forrestal, widow of Secretary Forrestal; and commissioned 1 October 1955, Captain R. L. Johnson in command.
FORRESTAL was home-ported on the East Coast and spent the first twelve years of her commissioned life serving with the 2nd and 6th Fleets. She departed Norfolk (Virginia) on 6 June 1967 for her first deployment to Vietnam with Carrier Air Wing 17 and about 80 aircraft embarked:
FORRESTAL arrived on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin on 25 July and immediately began combat operations. The first four days were routine; the fifth day, 29 July, was not.
- Attack Squadrons 46 and 106 with 24 A-4E SKYHAWK light bombers
- Attack Squadron 65 with 12 A-6A INTRUDER all-weather bombers
- Fighter Squadrons 11 and 74 with 24 F-4B PHANTOM fighter-bombers
- Heavy Reconnaissance Squadron 11 (RVAH-11) with 6 RA-5C VIGILANTE recon aircraft
- Airborne Early Warning Squadron 123 (VAW-123) with four HAWKEYE airborne control aircraft
- Det 59, Heavy Attack Squadron 10 (VAH-10) with four KA-3B SKYWARRIOR tankers
- Det 59, Helicopter Squadron 2 (HC-2), with several UH-2A SEASPRITE utility and ASW helicopters
- A VAP-61 detachment of RA-3B SKYWARRIOR intelligence collection aircraft
The ship was preparing to launch a major strike and many fully fueled and armed aircraft were parked about the deck. At 10:52 AM a 5" ZUNI rocket accidentally fired from an F-4 Phantom parked on the starboard side of the ship and pointed inboard. The rocket impacted an armed A-4 Skyhawk (piloted by then-LCDR, now Senator, John McCain) parked on the port side.
The rocket's impact dislodged and ruptured the Skyhawk's 400-gallon external fuel tank and ignited the jet fuel which poured out. A 1000-pound bomb also fell to the deck, into the spreading pool of flaming jet fuel. Within 90 seconds the bomb "cooked off" and detonated. That explosion resulted in a chain reaction as the closely-packed aircraft were first engulfed in and then contributed to a massive fire with repeated high-order bomb detonations. The ship's "plat" cameras, mounted on the island and embedded in the deck itself, provided ample video coverage of the initial accident and the subsequent catastrophe.
The first responders were Repair Party 8, led by Chief Petty Officer Gerald Farrier, who can be seen in the plat tapes running toward McCain's Skyhawk immediately after the rocket strike. The fuel tank had already ruptured and burning fuel was spreading around the aircraft. Chief Farrier had, as his weapon against this blaze, a hand-held fire extinguisher. He had not yet reached the Skyhawk when the first detonation occurred . . . he simply disappeared in the blast. A number of air- and deck crew were trapped in the inferno; many died there, while others were able to escape to the deck-edge catwalks.
Outside the rapidly spreading fire, the flight deck crew immediately began an effort to contain the blaze. The on-deck firefighting crews rallied after the first explosion and attacked the fire, only to disappear in the second, and larger, round of explosions. The plat tapes show the decimated firefighters recruiting help from anyone in the vicinity, and these make-shift crews once again pressed into the growing inferno. The third round of detonations cleared the deck of men and fire-fighting gear, but within a minute more crewmen from the forward deck and below-deck areas had reconstituted fire-fighting teams and were working their way aft.
Over a dozen 1,000 and 500 pound bombs detonated within the first few minutes of the fire, punching holes through the 3" armor plating of the flight deck. Flaming fuel poured through those holes, into the working and berthing spaces on the O-3 level, then down into the aft hangar bay. Numerous smaller explosions occurred as lesser weapons, ranging from the Skyhawk's cannon ammunition to 5" rocket warheads, detonated.
Although it was 13 hours and more before the last fire was extinguished, FORRESTAL's crew did put it out ... but at the cost of 135 dead and hundreds more injured. FORRESTAL left Yankee Station under her own power, steaming to Subic Bay for temporary repairs before returning to Norfolk on 15 September 1967.